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In reality, all they want is a little respect

May 26, 2003|Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson is the creator and executive producer of such cretinous reality classics as "Busted on the Job," "When Good Times Go Bad" and "Red Handed." He is the president of a production company named, surprisingly enough, Termite Art.

"We live in a time when the medium is no longer respected by its guardians. I believe there are studio executives and network heads out there who would rather make a show with an Aaron Sorkin than have lunch with the next contestant on 'How to Marry a Terrorist,' but those voices have gone silent for now."

-- David E. Kelley (2003)

"[Elvis Presley's] kind of music is deplorable, a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac."

-- Frank Sinatra (1956)

"Rock 'n' roll is phony and false, and sung, written and played -- for the most part -- by cretinous goons."

-- Frank Sinatra (1957)

"Something's happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"

-- Bob Dylan (1965)

Voices gone silent. Guardians of the media.


Where have I heard this kind of elitist vitriol before? Oh yeah, I remember. Back in the '50s, when the self-appointed arbiters of culture lambasted rock 'n' roll made by, and for, "cretinous goons."

OK, so they may have been right about that.

That's not the point I am trying to make. This is the point I am trying to make: Reality TV, with all its vulgarity, cultural Cuisinart blending of every commercial trend of mainstream television and, most important, ability to seriously offend those who believe they should decide what you should watch, is the new rock 'n' roll. The people's television, enjoyed only by those who feel it speaks to them, by those who feel it gives them something that the increasingly ossified and predictable sitcoms and hourlong "important" dramas do not. The people aren't always right. But they aren't always wrong.

Think about it this way. This TV, like early rock 'n' roll, is fast, loud and out of control. It emerges from the television equivalent of the basements and garages, the independent producer, with only one goal in mind -- get in, get out and hit the top of the charts. It is not "Art," in the David E. Kelley "Girls Club" sense (irony fully intended), but art with a small "a," only appreciated by those who find it speaks to them, not at them.

Sadly, this latest trend of self-righteous pontification by mainstream writers and producers is not confined to Kelley.

"Lions will be eating Christians soon," opines recently deposed "Bernie Mac Show" creator Larry Wilmore, in a recent Entertainment Weekly round table of morose show runners. Last week, Wilmore, apparently now with a little time on his hands, appeared on Bob Costas' HBO show to make the same points. He found no argument from his usually more perceptive host. An admittedly nonscientific poll of 2,500 HBO viewers, presented by Costas in the same broadcast, broke down opinions on reality TV thusly:

Welcome, innocent diversion: 10%

Innovative TV genre: 8%

Like a car wreck I can't stop watching: 9%

End of civilization as we know it: 73%

Some reality producers can't take the criticism. "How do they think this makes the people who put these shows on feel?" executive producer Michael Davies asked last week in the New York Times. "These people have done something pretty incredible for these networks, and now they're out there insulting them."

Take heart, Michael. This mutant genre that brought you riches may yet bring you respect.

Revolutions occasionally are televised. A prediction: A time will come when we look back at these shows and recognize a populist art form in the making, where instruments were picked up, new rhythms laid down and a new, vibrant art form was created.

Critic Manny Farber put it best in 1962, when he coined the phrase "Termite Art." "The most inclusive description of the art," wrote Farber, "is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement."

Maybe if these writers and producers living in their glass homes in Malibu would not throw stones, but rather build better houses, they -- and the public they profess to serve -- might have some alternative.

After all, Frank Sinatra did cover the Beatles.

And he and Bob Dylan wound up singing duets.

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